A leading national education expert said in a Dwight Hall talk Sunday that schools should be more focused on the child development needs of students instead of just meeting federal requirements.

In the talk in the Dwight Hall library, James P. Comer, a psychiatry professor at the School of Medicine Child Study Center, told a crowded room of Yale students and New Haven residents Sunday that some school principals do not fulfill needs of their students. Rather, they use their positions simply to advance their careers. And others care more about receiving federal funding and meeting minimal requirements set by the federal No Child Behind Act. He said his education reform program, known as the Comer Process, would help schools better focus on student achievement by having students directly work with teachers and parents to raise test scores and improve student behavior.

“I say that as long as you keep thinking about yourself and missing out on the kids who need it most, you can’t improve the system,” he said.

Comer, who also practices as a professional psychiatrist, said he started to question how federal and state governments administered public education during his childhood. Growing up, he excelled compared to his three best friends, who later found themselves in prisons, in mental institutions or dead from alcoholism.

“The biggest question that I have always been trying to answer was ‘What happened to them?’ ” Comer said.

He said he looked toward improving schools systems across the nations to prevent what had happened to his friends from occurring with other children. In 1968, he created the Comer Process and started to use it in schools in New Haven. School officials using the program work with parents, students and community leaders to raise student test scores and improve student behavior.

The process will help students understand their responsibility in improving the school system, he said.

“Child development is vital and the key to academic achievement,” Comer said. “We have to create a system where the child and teacher can interact in a way that allows children to be the marker and pathways towards success.”

Comer added that the public should be more concerned with education reform. With thousands of students dropping out daily, Comer said he hopes “the nation will put education reform on its national agenda before we lose too many.”

But in interviews after the talk, four students questioned his process.

“I definitely agreed with his main emphasis about the central focus of school being the child,” said Kayla Vinson ’11, a student in the Teacher Preparation and Education Studies Program and a Public School Intern for Dwight Hall. “However, I would have liked to hear him talk more about how other educational philosophies … are important in shaping educational reform as well.”

Some students said that another issue the Comer Process fails to address is how race and economic status are treated in the school system. Comer said that although research suggests that minorities receive fewer resources in public schools, he decided that there was no need to include race as a factor in the Comer Process because he did not want to exclude any student in his education reform program.

“Race wasn’t the issue with the schools we studied,” Comer said. “They were dysfunctional environments. By erasing the issue of race and creating the culture that all kids can do well, school systems are more likely to see a dramatic increase in academic performance and decrease in student misbehavior.”

Currently, the Comer Process has been used in over 500 schools throughout America.